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Introducing ‘Taking on the Boloverse’!

If you’ve ever fancied a mash-up courtroom drama where the defendant is a giant tank, I may have EXACTLY the book for you…

Everyone likes HUMUNGOUS mecha, right? And legal-suspense thrillers? Well, perhaps not everyone. I’m a huge fan of John Grisham thrillers, but may be the world’s only fan of the last hour of Transformers 3 (for the giant robots – the plot and acting sucks).

Nonetheless, for those of you who are fans of smart legal thrillers and giant robot movies, you must have asked yourself at some point: What happens if you mashed up Transformers 3 with A Few Good Men?


Trouble is, that book hasn’t been written yet.

And this is where I’m here to announce an exciting new project. I haven’t been updating this blog for several years, but I’m hoping (cross fingers) to start blogging again, specifically to talk about some of the world building around a collaborative novel I’ve just started on.

A Brief History of Bolos

In 1960, American sci-fi author Keith Laumer published his first Bolo story. Combat Unit tells of a giant intelligent tank that awakens after 300 years to find itself captured by alien scientists.

Ogre Designer's Edition by Steve Jackson Games — Kickstarter

In the years before his stroke in 1971, Laumer was to write other stories about the Bolos. He returned to writing a few years after his stroke, but his work never reached its previous quality. Nonetheless, the Bolos were popular enough for other sci-fi & fantasy authors, such David Weber and Linda Evans, to write novels in his universe. They also inspired a 1982 (and 1987?) video game, as well as Ogre, the Steve Jackson Tabletop game.

My guess is Ogre is how younglings like me are familiar with the Bolo series. After all, I was a toddler when the first video game came out. I didn’t buy the Designer edition of Ogre, kickstarted in 2012, but I was only dissuaded by the ENORMOUS box size.

Baen Books lost the licence to reprint the Bolo series at some point. The books went out of print and are no longer available for purchase new. You can purchase them second hand in the States.

Big Boys Don’t Cry

Nothing happened for a few years. Then in 2014, American military sci-fi author Tom Kratman, who happens to be a friend of mine, wrote Big Boys Don’t Cry, a novella scathingly critical of some of the political assumptions in Laumer’s work:

Not many people think of it this way, but the Boloverse, as in the late Keith Laumer’s Bolos and the spin-offs, is one of the most liberal themes in science fiction. It’s especially funny precisely because almost nobody understands that it’s liberal. Why do I say it’s liberal? Because it’s all about the easy, certain, and reliable programming of altruistic values in sentient beings. Brother, sister, that’s the penultimate CORE of liberalism. Interestingly, since the stories can move even me, it suggests to me that we ALL have some liberal in us. Big Boys Don’t Cry isn’t a Bolo story, either in the special military technical details or in the theme. What it is, though, is a deconstruction of that liberal meme on the easy, certain, and reliable programming of altruism in sentient beings. It’s also, I think, a pretty good story.

Perfectibility & the Boloverse

(I think) Tom is referring here to how the Bolos, on the book jackets at least, have God-like virtue. They are described as patient and brave. They’re knights in shining armour (literally). They’re Arthurian legends, the pure knight Galahad and Sir Lancelot of the future. In short, they’re:

faithful and tireless protectors of the human race

At the same time, the books have humans treating them like complete shit. They discard them at the bottom of rivers. They leave them buried under rockfalls for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Yet, despite being self-aware, intelligent killing machines, they never get pissed off with this treatment and take their revenge on their creators.

The idea that Bolos could be programmed to be completely virtuous, while also totally incapable of resisting injustice, seems oddly unrealistic.

Big Boys Don’t Cry and I

Big Boys Don’t Cry was published originally by alt-right publisher Castalia House. The lead editor, Vox Day, got it nominated for a Hugo Award in 2015 on the “Rabid Puppies” ‘slate’ (NOTE: I’m using ‘quote marks’ here because, no, we don’t need to argue about slates again).

Anyway, at this point, I entered the scene:

I read some articles claiming that a small group of  ‘rabid chauvinists’  were trying to keep women out of science fiction. According to the article, these Sad/Rapid Puppies hijacked the Hugo Awards, which describe themselves as science fiction’s most prestigious. I was concerned. I’d read Hugo Award-winning novels. I’m an aspiring hard SF author and had dreamed one day of winning an award.

It soon became apparent to me – in the most dramatic way possible – that the mainstream media coverage was lies. Or, in the trendy language of today, ‘fake news’ (well, okay, it was just biased to all heck).

In June 2015, I read and commented on Big Boys Don’t Cry, one of the novellas nominated by the Puppies. My commentary ran long. Out of politeness, I emailed the author, Tom Kratman. Stuck in my urban liberal bubble, I had no idea he was a well-known author with almost an entire shelf in London’s Forbidden Planet bookstore.

We got into a debate, initially about his novella and then about writing more generally.  Tom  noticed from my profile that I was struggling with a novel. We had a chat about the plot and setting, and why I was failing to finish.

Five years after I spent ~2,469 words dissing Tom’s novella like a clueless n00b jackass, we’re collaborating to turn BBDC into a novel. The idea is to use the original ideas, but frame the whole thing around a court martial. So, basically, a legal-suspense thriller about the right of an intelligent tank to  lose its shit.

The Blogging Project

The original Bolo stories are sixty years old now and haven’t necessarily aged that well. Yet, the debate around autonomous weaponry has never been so pertinent and interesting. As such, when I started chatting to Tom about the world-building in BBDC, we got into essay-length arguments about artificial intelligence.

I write about AI in my day job, and felt some of the original Boloverse was already ancient history (we already have autonomous robot tanks). In so far as BBDC was inspired by world-building in the original, I wanted to update it in the novel. In addition, I was excited about exploring ideas around sentience and consciousness in neural nets.

Tom, meanwhile, had assimilated many ideas about autonomous weaponry without – to my knowledge – engaging directly in the debates.

Eventually, after several multi-thousand-word exchanges, I realised this was turning into the sci-fi equivalent of the AI-Foom debate (but probably less well informed) and thought it might be nice to blog an edited version of our emails.

In addition, I was reading the original Bolo books to understand Tom’s mindset around the philosophy and ethics. So, I thought I’d blog that too. In part, for the punk value of a young person reading old SF&F.

16 thoughts on “Introducing ‘Taking on the Boloverse’!”

  1. Tom Kratman says:

    Not bad, although your literary harakiri could have been more self abasing…

    1. Vivienne Raper says:

      You know me, humble to a tee… 😛

  2. Gabriel Louw says:

    The Bolo novels were among my first science fiction novels. I would love for them to make a comeback.

    1. Vivienne Raper says:

      I should probably reiterate that this isn’t a comeback to the Boloverse, sadly 🙁

      It’s a giant tank novel, but it’s based off Big Boys Don’t Cry and is a criticism of the ideas in the Bolo books rather than a return to that universe. Various reasons for this, but one is that we’re already 60 years out from the original stories and some of the futuristic tech is seriously dated. It wouldn’t now be possible to set anything in the Boloverse without it appearing weirdly retro.

      That said, Laumer and his successors liked a good action-adventure with enormous tanks. I like a good action-adventure with enormous tanks. So, there’s going to be action-adventure with enormous tanks. It’s only ‘Bolo’ to the extent that Ogre is a Bolo-inspired tabletop game though.

  3. L.Greenwood says:

    I grew up on the Bolo novels. Hell other than one copy I still have all the ones I bought growing up for my own library.

    1. Vivienne Raper says:

      I had never read them before… :#/

      Tom and I disagree on whether this is purely a generational thing, or just my complete ignorance of classic SF (younger readers ignoring the classics appears to be a ranting issue).

      Either way, I’m currently reading the Bolo books to understand the ideas that Tom was criticising in BBDC.

  4. Ron Johnson says:

    I found Bolos somewhere around 1987 in my local library while reading an old anthology of sci-fi. That led me on a search for more Bolo lore. Loved what John Ringo send Tom Kratman did in their work and would greatly appreciate return to the Boloverse.
    The concept of courtroom drama is very interesting. Say, an officer of the Dinochrome Brigade ordered to defend a wayward Bolo in a court marshal against his will? What does he/she learn in the investigation? Etc.
    Anyway, I’m in.

    1. Tom Kratman says:

      Reboot was bad phraseology. If you want to understand where this is coming from you can read Big Boys Don’t Cry. However, since BBDC is going to be wrapped into this, you might feel cheated when this comes out. Your call, entirely.

      1. Ron Johnson says:

        I really enjoyed BBDC when I read last year. Think it had a good beginning of a realistic military sci-fi universe.

  5. Tom Kratman says:

    Point of order, BBDC actually kicked off Castalia House. It was the first thing they published. At the time, it, which is to say,
    Vox, appeared to be more Libertarian-Conservative-Minarchist than anything else. Apparently, things like that can change.

    1. Vivienne Raper says:

      Yeah, I couldn’t tell much about his real political views at all at that time. He came across as a libertarian who was edge-lording/shitposting to troll the authoritarian left.

      His views have either changed over the years or it was never ironic in the first place…

      1. Tom Kratman says:

        I knew him better than most, and I have no idea what the hell was going on there.

        1. Stephen St. Onge says:

          Observing Vox over the years, I fear he fell victim to the Intellectual’s Disease: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

          Vox claims to have an extremely high IQ, and I see no reason to doubt him about that. People with high IQs can easily understand things that the lesser mortals can’t grasp at all. And they can also see that many things the ordinary person believes are not true, or at best not really well supported, intellectually.

          Eventually, the high-IQ person is likely to hold ordinary people and common beliefs in contempt. He starts looking for the hidden truths that the common ruck can’t grasp, and building up intellectual systems that explain everything. And being human , he wants to feel superior, and doesn’t realize his emotions are leading him to believe things because they make him feel good, rather than because they are well supported by the available evidence.

          So the common people believe the U.S. went to the moon, and the ‘faked moon landing’ people are nuts? Well, then there’s probably something to the faked moon landing hypothesis.

          The common people believe the government is competent? Then the government must be so retarded it can barely tie its shoes on its own. (Of course, this contradicts the previous hypothesis about the moon landing. But both beliefs make him feel good, so he won’t even notice what a fool he’s making of himself.)

          Recently he swallowed the ‘FDR knew that Pearl Harbor was going to be bombed, and deliberately withheld that information from Kimmel’ story. Apparently because he read one (1) book on the subject, and it fits in with his hatred and contempt for Roosevelt. Besides, most people don’t believe it, so it must be true.

          Well, I am not a big fan of the 32nd President, but I’ve researched this over the years several times, and the evidence keeps coming up the same: no one in the Army or Navy had a clue the attack was coming. Which means I don’t get to hate of Franklin D. over this.

          On some level I’m sure Vox Day knows about the sin of pride. But it doesn’t occur to him that he might be committing it, precisely because he is.

          An extended Orwell quote.

          If one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible. Here are just a few examples. I list below five types of nationalist, and against each I append a fact which it is impossible for that type of nationalist to accept, even in his secret thoughts:

          BRITISH TORY: Britain will come out of this war with reduced power and prestige.

          COMMUNIST: If she had not been aided by Britain and America, Russia would have been defeated by Germany.

          IRISH NATIONALIST: Eire can only remain independent because of British protection.

          TROTSKYIST: The Stalin regime is accepted by the Russian masses.

          PACIFIST: Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.

          All of these facts are grossly obvious if one’s emotions do not happen to be involved: but to the kind of person named in each case they are also intolerable, and so they have to be denied, and false theories constructed upon their denial. I come back to the astonishing failure of military prediction in the present war. It is, I think, true to say that the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings. The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.

          1. Tom Kratman says:

            Actually, mine is a few points higher.

          2. Tom Kratman says:

            Oh, and, no, we KNEW the attack was coming. It was Pearl Harbor as the target that took us by surprise.

          3. Vivienne Raper says:

            Eventually, the high-IQ person is likely to hold ordinary people and common beliefs in contempt. He starts looking for the hidden truths that the common ruck can’t grasp, and building up intellectual systems that explain everything. And being human , he wants to feel superior, and doesn’t realize his emotions are leading him to believe things because they make him feel good, rather than because they are well supported by the available evidence.

            I had prepared a long, complex alternative explanation… and then I realised I’d just used the phrase “Dark Enlightenment coder memplex” unironically…

            So, I parked the alternative explanation 😉

            I assumed back in 2015 he was just a libertarian trolling the heck out of Worldcon. It’s possible he was back then, but he seems to have taken up old-school Dixie racism with a sideline in 8chan conspiracy theories.

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